Story of Our Constitution - E. M. Tappan

The Beginning of the Government

It was not all smooth sailing, even in the celebrations. The Federalists in Providence did not wait for their State's decision, but were beginning a jubilation with a barbecue of roasted oxen, when down upon them came a mob of lovers of paper money, led by three members of the State legislature. In Albany, the Federalists rang the bells and fired ten guns. The Antis retorted with thirteen guns and burned a copy of the Constitution. They then went to one hotel for dinner, and the Federalists went to another. After dinner the Federalists cut down a tree in the woods, trimmed off the branches, nailed another copy of the Constitution to the top, and planted it in the warm ashes of the Anti-Federal fires. So far, the proceedings hurt no one, but the Antis now set off with all the stones they could carry, and went in pursuit of the Federalists. Then came a real fight, in which the Federalists were the victors.

What was to be done about New York was a question, and an important one. The State stood fifth in number of inhabitants, but her location made her important, for she not only touched the ocean, but by means of her rivers she could easily have excellent communication with the Great Lakes and the West. She had a large commerce with New Jersey and the Eastern States on her own borders. Goods coming in from other States had to pay a five-percent duty, and New York had no idea of giving this up to Congress for the sake of free trade with every State that might wish to sell her things. On the other hand, she had no desire to stand entirely alone, and have to provide her own navy, forts, and representatives abroad. Perhaps New York, Virginia, and North Carolina could unite, she thought, but the news came that Virginia had come "under the roof." This was a blow to the New York Antis. After considerable delay, they made an offer which many people thought the Federalists ought to accept. They said they would agree to ratify the Constitution provided some amendments that they desired might be made a part of it; and they wanted the right to withdraw from the Union if they chose.

Hamilton and Madison consulted. Madison declared that after a State had once ratified the Constitution, it had no right to withdraw from the Union. They agreed that a conditional ratification was no ratification at all. At length it was moved that New York should ratify the Constitution, as Massachusetts had done, "in full confidence "that needed amendments would be made. This confidence was not so "full," however, that the Antis did not think it necessary to insist upon an agreement that all States should be invited by a circular letter to an immediate convention for taking up all proposed amendments. Even then, the motion to ratify was barely carried, for the vote was only thirty to' twenty-seven in favor. At the New York celebration, the "Ship of State "that was drawn through the streets was named Hamilton. The honor was well deserved, for the fact that New York ratified at all was due in great part to this young man whom that State had sent to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia expressly to be beaten by his two colleagues. He had been in a most helpless and embarrassing position; but now he had come to his own.

Parade after Constitution


Hamilton was born in Nevis, one of the British West Indies, came to New York and entered Columbia [then King's] College. He was only seventeen when he spoke at a great mass meeting in New York City in favor of resistance to Great Britain, and wrote two powerful pamphlets on the same subject. In the Revolution he had been on Washington's staff; then he became a lawyer, and at thirty was sent as a delegate to the constitutional convention with the two older men of opposing views. He was now free from all such embarrassment, and he became the leader of the Federalists in the State convention.

Although Hamilton had signed the Constitution, he had not been wildly enthusiastic about it; but now he became its most earnest advocate. To whatever was said in opposition, he had always an answer ready. His most telling work, however, was done in the newspapers. Of course the papers were full of attacks upon the proposed constitution, some of them honest and decent, others scurrilous.

It was by one writer declared to be "as deep and wicked a conspiracy as ever was invented in the darkest ages against the liberties of a free people."

Hamilton had no idea of replying to such writings as these, but he did believe that there were in the land thousands of honest, straightforward Americans who were not accustomed to the terms of documents and conventions and who would therefore be easily influenced by these plausible slanderers. To reach these people he planned a series of articles explaining in simple language the meaning of the Constitution, part by part. Madison and Jay united in this work, but Jay was taken ill, Madison was occupied in Virginia, and the result was that Hamilton wrote nearly two-thirds of the articles. He wrote simply and clearly, but with dignity and eloquence; and he made an irresistible appeal to just the class whom he wished to reach, the quiet thinkers of the day. These papers had a powerful influence throughout the States, but greatest in New York—where they were most needed. They came out three or four times a week. They were written for a definite purpose, and probably Hamilton never dreamed of their being handed down through the generations; but it was gradually discovered that the Federalist, as the collected papers were called, was the clearest and best and most authoritative interpreter of the Constitution.

Neither North Carolina nor Rhode Island was "under the roof." North Carolina had indeed called her convention to meet in July. The members were discussing the Constitution when news came that Virginia, New Hampshire, and New York had ratified it. Now they were in a dilemma. Those whom they represented had bidden them vote against it, and they hardly ventured to act contrary to their instructions. On the other hand, this news put matters in a different light, for North Carolina did not care to stand as the only State between Rhode Island and Florida not belonging to the Union. While they were trying to find a way out of their dilemma, news came of the convention proposed by New York. That gave them an idea; they would send a list of the amendments which they desired to this new convention, to be acted upon, and meanwhile they would adjourn. They made it clear that they had no intention of opposing Congress, for they voted that whatever duties Congress might ordain should be collected in North Carolina by the State "for the use of Congress." November 21, 1789, North Carolina gave her vote in favor of ratification. Rhode Island clung to her paper money and did not ratify until May 29, 1790.

The new government set to work promptly. A day was appointed to choose electors who should meet and vote for a President and Vice-President. But Congress had no abiding-place. It had no city, no capitol, not a building of any kind that it could call its home. This was undignified, to say the least, and must be remedied. In the difficulties of travel, the place must be central. Baltimore, Lancaster, Trenton, Philadelphia, New York, Princeton were all discussed. New York was the best place, but there was strong opposition to giving the honor to a State which had joined the Union almost under compulsion. Finally, after every other name had been discussed, Congress went back to New York, and that city was chosen.

New York now began to clean house and get ready for company. There was no money in her treasury, but some of her wealthy merchants contributed a generous sum. The City Hall was practically made over, and when March 4, 1789, came, it was ready to receive Congress—more ready indeed than Congress was to be received, for of the fifty-nine members only twenty-one were present. One week, two weeks, three weeks passed. The Antis had a fine time making fun of the Congress that had forgotten to assemble. The congressmen who were in town sent messengers to the tardy members to hurry, and a few came straggling in, but March was nearly at its end before the thirty necessary to a quorum had arrived. The ranks of the senators were still thin, and it was the end of the first week in April before they were ready to count the votes for President and Vice-President. The ballots were carried into the Senate Chamber and presented to the presiding officer, John Langdon of New Hampshire, and in the presence of the Senate and the House, he opened them and counted the vote. Washington was unanimously chosen President, and John Adams, Vice-President.

Washington had deeply longed to spend his last years in quiet, but he would not refuse to heed the call of his country. He wrote that he realized keenly how lacking he was in political skill, abilities, and inclination to take such a position. He felt, he said, "like a culprit who is going to the place of his execution."

Charles Thomson, who had been secretary of Congress ever since its first meeting, as the "First Continental Congress," in Carpenters Hall, in Philadelphia, carried Washington the letter of John Langdon announcing his election. Two days later he set out for New York. A large company of his friends and neighbors attended him across the borders of Virginia. At each town on the way he was welcomed and shown every honor that his time would permit.

In Philadelphia he received and answered addresses from the officers of the city and State government. At Trenton, the Jersey bank of the Delaware was lined with people, who greeted him with salutes and huzzas. It was at Trenton that he had captured the Hessians that stormy Christmas night of 1776. At the bridge over the creek where he had repulsed the British army, the ladies of the town had raised a triumphal arch supported by thirteen columns, each wreathed with evergreen. On it was inscribed, "The Defender of the mothers will be the Protector of the daughters." Here stood a group of young girls dressed in white; and as he advanced they strewed flowers in his way and sang:

"Virgins fair, and matrons grave,

Those thy conquering arms did save,

Build for thee triumphal bowers.

Strew, ye fair, his way with flowers—

Strew your Hero's way with flowers."

At Elizabeth Point, Washington embarked in a barge built for the occasion, manned by thirteen sailors in white, and was rowed to the New York shore. Here were the chief officers of State and city. Bells were rung, flags flown, houses were brilliant with banners and flowers and evergreens, and "Washington "in letters of gold. The streets were crowded with citizens, all eager to have a look at his face.

April 30th was the day set for the inauguration. In the morning the churches were crowded with people who had gone to offer up prayers for the safety and welfare of the president of their republic. At noon, a long procession formed to escort the chosen one of the people to Federal Hall.

After meeting both Houses of Congress, he was informed that the time had come for the administration of the oath of office. Followed by senators and representatives, he went out upon the balcony. This was a kind of recess with high columns on either side. In the center was a table with crimson velvet cover, and on the table was a Bible resting on a crimson velvet cushion. Here Washington stood in full view of the multitude of citizens. He wore a dark brown suit with white silk stockings and silver shoe-buckles. His hair was powdered. By his side hung a dress sword. The people welcomed him with cheers and the waving of hats and handkerchiefs. He moved forward to the rail and bowed several times, then seated himself.

The great multitude was hushed as the Chancellor of the State repeated slowly and distinctly the words of the Presidential oath: "'I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.' Do you swear this?"

Inauguration of Washington


Washington stood with his hand laid on the open Bible and said solemnly:—" I swear—so help me God!"

The secretary would have raised the Bible to his lips, but he bowed reverently and kissed it. As he raised his head, the Chancellor cried: "Long live George Washington, President of the United States!"